The Courage to Continue Writing - A Checklist

Walter Mason on writing retreat in Tibet


Last night I was at Sutherland Library talking to a lovely group of people about what it means to keep writing even when we want to give up. I was speaking from experience, and I drew on my own recent "dry" period in order to provide them with some examples and methods that might help them keep going, even through the hard times.



Here are the main points I covered, and a handy list of what you can and should do when you feel like you want to give up on writing:

1. Create or join a writing group. Big or small doesn't matter. My own writing group is 3 people and it works perfectly. I was always sceptical about the efficacy of writing groups, but I have found that having one works. Try to make sure that everyone in it is serious about what they are doing and use competitiveness to your advantage. Encourage them to make you feel guilt about not producing.

2. Connect with nature. Walk out into your garden every day with your bare feet. As writers we can become disembodied – our experiences can become too intellectual, too reliant on the imagination, or on the past. Being in nature means you re-connect with the idea of cycles, and you become less hard on yourself – you see that a creative life will have seasons.

3. Keep a journal. Writing – all creativity – is an ever-changing process, and there is something valuable to be gained by engaging with the process itself. I am a huge exponent of keeping journals, and have one with me at all times. If you are not writing, ask yourself why, and write down all the reasons in a journal. Write down the feelings you have when you are not writing, and the feelings you have when you are.

4. Set yourself a stupid goal. When I started meeting with my writing group I told them I would have my novel finished in 90 days. Of course, that didn’t happen – not even close. But guess what? I wrote way more in that 90 days than I ever would have had I just kept telling people I was thinking about writing a novel. And so often I was thinking: “What I am writing is crap. I have no idea how to write a novel. I am just going to stop here and start a tree lopping business.” But I kept going and now I have something substantial that I can think of as, kind of, a novel.

5. Know why it is you want to write.  Why are you doing this? Why do you want to write and send that writing out into the world? There are no invalid answers here. But you do need to keep it in sight. This is what will drag you back to your focus and what will help you keep  going. My own personal guide in all this is is Elinor Glyn, a woman who found sensational success in the 1920s and 30s writing romance novels and later screenplays for Hollywood. I want my life to be like hers, being photographed draped in extravagant Persian cats.

6. Narrow it down. It really, really helps if you can narrow down your focus. I know you’re brilliant and filled with a million ideas and possibilities, and so does your mum. But the rest of the world doesn’t really care. they're only interested in what you actually produce. Finding one thing to concentrate on and finish might seem dull, but it can have an enormous impact on your confidence and your momentum. I started going places when I could say, once and for all,  that I was finishing something.

7. Open yourself up to your creativity and say "yes" more often. Like my friend, the immensely creative and productive Alana Fairchild, who produces beautiful things all the year round and has a great audience for them. So many self-help books and writing guides tell you to be jealous of your time and learn to say "No." I say the exact opposite. You never know what is coming your way. Give your creative impulse freedom and be brave about your own talent.

8. Establish some rituals around writing. Create your own writing soundtrack. Could a particular project have its own smell from incense, perfume or essential oils? Its own tea? Begin some Pavlovian responses by creating actions and things which remind you to write, even if you don't really want to.

9. Go on a writing retreat. I can’t stress the importance of tearing yourself away from your usual routines and facing up to your own writing realities enough. I went away on two writing retreats in the Himalayas with Jan Cornall and Writer's Journey and it really helped me re-think myself and what I wanted to do with my writing life. Now, I understand that a month in Bhutan might not be realistically achievable for you right now. But please consider what is, and how you can get away to be by yourself, or with other writers.

10. Write in those micro-moments. One of the lessons I learned on retreat is to take advantage of those micro-moments – another reason, incidentally, to always have a journal and pen with me. Many believe that we must do our writing in big chunks, devoting whole days or even weeks at a time to a project. Until then, we tell ourselves, it’s not worth starting. BUT IT IS!!! While away I found it hard to write for  more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time. And even then, I could not follow on from what I had been writing previously. I was just capturing fragments – and to be honest they were dazzling fragments. I had a fair idea of where they belonged, and it wouldn’t be hard to find a place for them.

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